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Endangered species: Guinea worm

A woman in Nigeria endures the painful extraction of Guinea worm.

A woman in Nigeria endures the painful extraction of Guinea worm

A flurry of reports lately have celebrated the potential end of one of the world’s most horrific human parasites, the Guinea worm. Here’s the latest such from The Guardian:

Guinea worm disease is reaching the end of its days. The parasitic infection, which has sickened millions, mostly in Asia and Africa, is on the verge of being done in not by sophisticated medicine but by aggressive public health efforts in some of the poorest and most remote parts of the world.

I’ve reported on this disease for many years and seen people afflicted by it – including the last Nigerian known to have had the parasite. You become a host to Guinea worm from drinking contaminated water, which allows it to eat its way through your body over a year’s time – as it grows to several feet in length.

It doesn’t kill you, but its painful course through your body might make you wish were dead.

Some might think this an interesting but minor accomplishment given the other health needs of the developing world, but it’s more important than it appears. The elimination of Guinea worm from poor farming communities in Africa and Asia translates into more productive communities, not to mention the broader benefit of improved water quality. And it was largely done through educating people on a shoestring budget, mostly led by the Carter Center, rather than using some new vaccine or drug.

Guinea worm looks to be the second human disease, after smallpox, to get wiped off the planet (followed soon — or perhaps preceded — by polio, many hope). This is a great accomplishment. For those who aren’t so sure, those who want to preserve the balance of nature and respect all life, here’s a place for you — Save the Guinea Worm Foundation


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.